JFK Counsel Ted Sorensen keeps the dream — and image — alive

Ted Sorensen, special counsel and adviser to John F. Kennedy before and during the Kennedy administration, told a packed house at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club last night that his old friend of Camelot days should be remembered as “a man of peace.”

“The biggest misperception of John F. Kennedy,” Sorensen said in response to an audience question, “is that he was essentially a Cold War hero.  That’s from the familiar paragraph at the beginning of his inaugural address, ‘…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.'”

More important, Kennedy’s old friend said, are the words toward the end of that address in which he reached out a hand to (the nation’s then-#1 opponent) Russia seeking peace — “a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction”; movement toward arms control —“let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms”; and scientific collaboration — “together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Sorensen, whose earlier book Kennedy: the Classic Biography was on bestseller lists for months, was promoting a current memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, and was appearing in a program sponsored by the humanitarian nonprofit Roots of Peace. Much of the newer book focuses on his years with JFK, beginning with an interview at the age of 24, fresh out of the University of Nebraska law school. When he asked then-senator Kennedy what he would want him to do if hired, Sorensen recalls, he was given a long list of proposed meetings  with powerful figures and the task of “crafting a legislative program for the economic revival of New England, and I thought that was pretty tall cotton.”

Sorensen, who is acknowledged as author of most of Kennedy’s speeches (though not the inaugural), said the President was unjustly criticized for not writing his own. In those days before press secretaries, communication staffers and speechwriting committees, he said, “it was always a collaborative effort” between the two men. “My office was right down the hall from his in the West Wing, and it was just the President and me. Only the President revised and corrected.”

Kennedy, Sorensen said, resisted advice to send combat troops into Vietnam and bombers into North Vietnam, and to use force in other parts of Indochina. “Thank goodness I learned from the Bay of Pigs,” he quoted JFK as saying; “otherwise I’d have listened to (that) advice.”

But as to Kennedy’s assurance, in a 1963 speech, that “the world knows America will never start a war,” Sorensen said, “that was then… I’m not so sure about now.”

In response to an audience question about what he missed the most, Sorensen said he would want the world to remember that Kennedy began to lay the foundation for peace, through such programs as aid to education, civil rights programs and the Peace Corps, and was a man of peace. “I miss having a friend like that in the White House.”

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